Pacifica, CA

Follow along on one family's hunt for a home in the absurd Northern California real estate market

Kristen Philipkoski
This is a weekly series documenting a real family's quest to find a home in their beloved California coastal town, Pacifica, CA.

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[Photo by Anna-Alexia Basile for Stylenik]

In the spring of 2011, my husband and I lived in a San Francisco Mission District loft in one of the many buildings that had popped up throughout the neighborhood in place of warehouses and factories. It was modern and comfortable, if small. But it was just the two of us, and we had no complaints. We loved the neighborhood—we were walking distance from delicious and cheap pupusas and Secret Breakfast ice cream. What more could a childless 30-something couple need?

But after living there for less than a year, our landlord decided to sell and we had to move out. We had been trying to have a child and figured it was good timing to find something larger, probably in the suburbs. I imagined bucolic and fancy Marin County areas. But the rents in towns like Sausalito and San Rafael quickly disabused us of that idea.

So we broadened our search to include the entire Bay Area, and I spotted on Craigslist a 70s-style home in Pacifica with stunning views of the Pacifica Ocean. My husband had enjoyed living in Pacifica briefly in the late 1990s, but I had written it off as too foggy and a bit weird. I didn’t know anyone who lived there or who wanted to.

But we decided to check it out anyway. As we took the exit we’d driven by a million times to head south on the 1, my hopes were not high. We drove up a steep, pothole-riddled hill and wondered if our stick-shift Jetta would stall. But we made it to the top and knocked on the door.

Then: dun dun dun! Two weeks ago, our landlords let us know our lease would not be renewed. After 10 years in the house, May would be our last month.

The landlord didn’t immediately answer and we wondered if we had gotten the time wrong. She eventually answered and explained she’d been downstairs—which meant the house was large enough that it took some time to navigate from down there to the front door, a concept completely foreign to us.

Another couple was also touring the house, but we didn’t feel competitive about winning the rental. Our hearts weren’t (yet) set on Pacifica. Plus the house was covered in wall-to-wall shag carpet.

But it also had a vibe-y sunken living room, a Preway standalone fireplace, so much space, plus, that amazing view. And the rent was less than anything else we’d seen. The more I looked at the photos on Craigslist, the more I wanted it. I texted photos to my dad and when I told him the rent ($2,700) he told me to offer more.

But we got it at that pirce and moved to Pacifica. Our furniture filled maybe half of the house, but what we did have suited the space perfectly. One bedroom stood completely empty save for a waterbed smaller than a twin. We showed it off as a novelty to visitors and sometimes houseguests slept on it. I worried about the state of the water inside of it, which had been enclosed in the mattress for a good 40 years.

I had—did this really happen?—the luxury of another entire room for my office and closet. (If you're interested you can see the place here and here.)

Still, I had one foot firmly in SF. We were just about 10 miles from the city and I could easily go back and forth for events, dance classes and meetups with friends.

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[Photo by Theresa Gonzales for Apartment Therapy]

A year later, we adopted a newborn baby. Gradually, my sense of community strengthened. Our neighbors were lovely and the girl next door could babysit. We enrolled our daughter in preschool, then she began kindergarten at the public elementary school that was my number one choice. Our roots grew deeper as we met other families and invested time and energy volunteering and building relationships.

I had—did this really happen?—the luxury of another entire room for my office and closet.

Our son moved in and took up residence in my former office/closet.

Over the next few years, the Pacifica real estate market (like the rest of the Bay Area) began to explode and we realized how lucky we were to have so much space and an ocean view for rent that was under market rates.

We grew to love our house, and Pacifica. I no longer had a closet at all, but I didn’t mind. As both home prices crept higher, we periodically checked Zillow and tried not to stress about losing our rental.

A year ago, our best friends bought a home one short mile away, lured to the coastal town by many dinners and sleepovers with us.

Then: dun dun dun! Two weeks ago, our landlords let us know our lease would not be renewed. After 10 years in the house, May would be our last month.

I cried. But I can’t be mad. The family that owns the home isn't cashing in on the red hot market (although who could blame them if they did). They have a deep emotional attachment to the house and another generation is ready to start a family here. I’m genuinely happy for them.

And we have some work ahead of us.

A home comparable to where we live now would cost around $1.5 million in this market, original 1970s kitchen notwithstanding. A home up the street minus the view appears to have no exterior paint, the inside hasn’t been updated for decades and honestly it’s just a mess. It's listed for $1.6 million.

My husband is a spreadsheet nerd who’s obsessed with our spending, savings, and retirement funds. He says we can afford to spend about $1 million now if we want to retire semi-early, which he is keen to do. A million dollars in Pacifica gets you a home that’s too small for our family of four or a teardown. Plus we're design-obsessed so it's difficult to stomach spending a million bucks on something we don't love looking at.

But we love Pacifica and hope to keep our daughter in school here, remain connected to our cherished friends, and stay close to the ocean.

I just want to be clear that we're not throwing a pity party here. We know we're fortunate to have a home, to be healthy, to have the opportunity to buy a home anywhere.

So it’s not an exhaustive list, but here the options we're currently considering:

  • Rent in the Bay Area and hope the market softens.
  • Rent in a cheaper area and save more money (and hope the market softens).
  • Move in with my husband’s mom in Orange County for a year and save like crazy.
  • Find land to buy now and build later.
  • Find a teardown to buy now and build later.
  • If we find land, build a prefab home (we’re currently obsessed with Connect-Homes, and no this post is not sponsored).
  • Buy in a cheaper area (we came this close to buying this midcentury modern gem near Spokane. We also came close in Santa Rosa, CA but I’m skittish about the fires).

We are just two weeks into our California real estate journey. I’ll be writing weekly updates until we figure out our next step and I’d love it if you followed along. And if you have any suggestions, recommendations, or stories to share, please do so in the comments! We can use all the help we can get.

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I'm a veteran writer and editor and founder of Mean Magazine and The Mean Podcast for GenX women. I write about everything from fashion to science and everything in between. I’ve written for Racked, Refinery 29, 7x7, SF Chronicle, Wired, Gizmodo and many others.

Pacifica, CA
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